Some matters relating to the recently concluded general elections were said to be in contravention of international best practices. This is according to the preliminary report that was released by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association British Islands and Mediterranean Region (CPA BIMR) Election Observation Mission (EOM).
The Observers noted some of the recommendations that were made following the 2011, and 2015 elections and noted that some of the recommendations that were not addressed remained an issue in 2019. “A number of crucial recommendations remain unaddressed. There are no party or campaign finance laws, the channels to seek redress pre-election day are not clearly outlined, conditions to suffrage rights are overly restrictive, and there are no legal provisions for domestic and international observers. The absence of a consolidated legal text raises concerns over accessibility and legislative clarity.”
The EOM raised alarm about matters that concerned suffrage rights. One of the central points of concern is the fact that some residents in the Territory for decades are denied the right to vote while persons not residing or paying taxes in the Territory are able to.
In addressing the matter in the preliminary report the Mission noted that the BVI constitution grants the right to vote to persons who “belong to the Virgin Islands”, have reached the age of 18 on election day, and are either domiciled and resident in the Virgin Islands or domiciled in the Virgin Islands and resident in the US Virgin Islands. It was noted that the constitution further specifies criteria for disqualification. “Those legally declared insane or of unsound mind, having been convicted of an offence related to elections, under a sentence of death, or serving a sentence of imprisonment for a term exceeding twelve months are disqualified to vote.”
On the other hand, the EOM noted that in order to stand as a candidate at the 2019 election, one had to be a registered voter, resident for five years and 21 years of age.
After noting these legal stipulations, the EOM announced that this position contravenes international laws. “Several of these restrictions on voting and standing go against international standards extended to the Virgin Islands”.
According to the Observer Mission these contravening matters include the current Belonger status system. The preliminary report said: “Belonger status is not automatically acquired by birth or through citizenship, but by descent or by having held residence status for a minimum of 21 years and, reportedly, undertaken an additional application process likely to last several more years. This contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which seeks to ensure all individuals within its territory have the right to vote and stand as a candidate without distinction of any kind such as national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
“Thus, there are citizens with resident status who are not granted suffrage rights and non-citizens residing abroad with the right to vote and stand. This again undermines the principles of equity, fairness and representation,” the report announced.
Too fast is Not best practice
From a legal point of view, the Election Observation Mission raised concerns about the implementation of the recent amendments that were made to the Elections Act, that was passed on 22 January.
The Mission pointed out that the Act only came into effect after the House was dissolved on 24 January and that the Governor’s assent was actually given on the 29 January. Essentially the EOM pointed out that the swift implementation was not international best practice.
“According to international good practice the electoral framework should not be changed within one year prior to an election. Whilst recent amendments enjoyed cross-party support, they were not the result of an inclusive process and were rushed through the House without thorough public consultation. The very short deadlines for electoral preparations presented a challenge to the work of the election administration,” the EOM stated.
The six-members acknowledged that the BVI made positive efforts to address some of the recommendations offered by the previous Mission in 2015. These changes they noted included the use of electronic counting, and electronic identification of voters at polling stations, the introduction of a code of conduct by candidates, political parties and campaigners, the use of a single ballot, and the provision for early voting.
The EOM gave high praise of the Office of the Supervisor of Elections which earned kudos for the manner in which the election was executed on short notice and the various education initiatives that were undertaken.
Voter / Candidate Registration Concerns
The Observers said that the increase in the number of voters registered especially for Districts 5 and 8 triggered suspicions about voters being registered outside their place of residence to influence the outcome of the election.
“A lack of resources and adequate verification undertaken by the election administration may have contributed to this sentiment. There is no single consolidated register of Belongers (those eligible to register as voters) available to all candidates,” the report stated.
It was later explained by the EOM that the Office of the Supervisor of Elections explained that the number of voters in District 5 can be attributed to the fact that voters registrations were held in anticipation of the voters registration that were to be held.
As it relates to issues and incidents it was mentioned that the results from the early polling were leaked and that the Office of the Supervisor of Elections is investigating the matter.
The six-member Observer Mission was led by Hon. Palmavon Webster MHA from Anguilla and included parliamentarians Jamie Greene MSP from Scotland, Glenn Bedingfield MP from Malta, Election Analysts Merce Castells from Spain and Matthew Salik from the United Kingdom, as well as Election Coordinator, Felicity Herrmann, from Germany.